The Curator’s Role in Crowd-Pleasing Events, Part 2: Philosophy and Research

We hope that you found our previous post about resource protection during holiday events helpful and informative.  (See “The Curator’s Role in Crowd-Pleasing Events, Part 1.”)  The second installment of this holiday series is presented by Gregory R. Weidman, Curator of Hampton National Historic Site and Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.  This post emphasizes the importance of maintaining historical accuracy and site relevancy at your historic house museum during the holiday season.  

[The following post written by Gregory R. Weidman]

Attracting visitors to our sites is always important, and the public loves traditional holiday displays and events. However, it is essential to balance this with staying true to our institution’s mission. We have an obligation to do more than just entertain the public, to merely show them a house festively decorated. In creating holiday exhibits we should strive to be:

  • Historically accurate, but even beyond that . . .
  • Authentic to the particular site, its inhabitants, and its locale
  • Educational and informative in an interesting way that engages the public

Research and investigation underpin each of these goals.

Presenting Historically Accurate Holiday Exhibits

 Despite your own fond memories from childhood, a big Christmas tree with bubble lights is obviously not appropriate if your historic house dates from the Colonial Era! In order to accurately recreate a typical American Christmas celebration in the past you must educate yourself about the general history of holiday celebrations in America. (Some sites may highlight other holidays depending on their related histories). Fortunately, there are lots of sources from which to learn.

If your historic house is interpreted primarily to the early Federal era, it is best to eschew the traditional Christmas tree entirely, unless the site is part of a Germanic community. In a later Victorian Era setting, a tree surrounded by gifts may be appropriate. The “devil is in the details,” however, so care must be taken in selecting individual elements of the display. The tree would not have electric lights but candles; the ornaments would likely have featured dolls, toys, musical instruments, flags, cornucopias, and baskets of treats in addition to a few glass ornaments; most gifts of toys for the children would have been left unwrapped; and those that were would have been in plain brown paper or tissue with fabric ribbon since holiday gift wrapping paper as we know it today was not invented until the World War I era. You might even consider putting a smaller tree on a table, as shown in many illustrations of Christmas settings in the 1850-1900 period, rather than using a tall tree.

Thomas Nast, "Christmas 1863," Harper's Weekly, December 26, 1863. Note gifts under the table-top Christmas tree and stockings hung on the mantel.(Image source:  http://www.sonofthesouth.net/Original_Santa_Claus.htm)

Thomas Nast, “Christmas 1863,” Harper’s Weekly, December 26, 1863. Note gifts under the table-top Christmas tree and stockings hung on the mantel. (Image source: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/Original_Santa_Claus.htm)

Being Authentic to Your Specific Site, the People, and Its Locale

 Even though a tradition may be accurate to the time period your site interprets, you should also ask: What do you actually know about the individuals related to your site? Do you know how they celebrated or even if they celebrated a particular holiday? Bringing together as much information as possible from documentary sources related to your site and its inhabitants is key in this effort. Also consider the particular characteristics of your region (cultural, climatological) that could impact what you select to display. For example, be sure the greens are appropriate both to the time period (avoid variegated holly in early settings) and region (e.g., no Magnolia grandiflora in Maine!).

Hampton National Historic Site (NHS), interpreted to varying periods of occupancy from 1790-1910, provides several examples to illuminate these points. The site preserves 62 acres in Baltimore County, Maryland, that were part of a once-vast agricultural, industrial, and commercial empire owned by seven generations of the Ridgely family. Hampton is lucky to have thousands of objects original to the site as well as vast archival collections which document all aspects of life on the estate.

The Parlour interprets the earliest period of occupancy (1790-1810). A Christmas tree would be inappropriate at this early date so we have chosen to show a fashionable Federal-era evening tea party. At this time, the mistress of the estate was an ardent Methodist, known for her piety and plain dress, thus we selected a less “spirited” type of gathering. For decorating, we selected locally abundant holly which we use sparingly, as would suit the time period and the mistress’ preference for things kept simple. Holly is probably the most frequently depicted evergreen in the pictorial sources from this era. Traditionally, it was used in vases and containers of all kinds, very frequently on mantels, and to deck picture frames and looking glasses. The use of holly in the English tradition is very old: a sixteenth century poem advises, “Get Iuye [ivy] and hull [holly], woman deck up thyne house.”1 Faux foods appropriate to an evening collation of the era, such as a festive “hedgehog cake,” complete the low-key setting.

View of the Drawing Room at Hampton NHS during Yuletide installation set up to depict the presentation of gifts to the enslaved children, ca. 1850. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

View of the Drawing Room at Hampton NHS during Yuletide installation set up to depict the presentation of gifts to the enslaved children, ca. 1850. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

“CHRISTMAS GIFTS of the Colored Children of Hampton, Given by E. Ridgely,” 1841-1854, written by Eliza Ridgely (1828-1894), HAMP 14733, MS. 001, Ridgely Family Papers, Hampton NHS, Towson, MD. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

“CHRISTMAS GIFTS of the Colored Children of Hampton, Given by E. Ridgely,” 1841-1854, written by Eliza Ridgely (1828-1894), HAMP 14733, MS. 001, Ridgely Family Papers, Hampton NHS, Towson, MD. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

In the Drawing Room (1840-1860) we interpret the pre-Civil War era. Because illuminating the lives of everyone who lived and labored at Hampton is crucial, it is particularly important to focus on the estate’s numerous enslaved individuals within the mansion as well as on the farm and slave quarters, a goal that could be hard to achieve in a holiday-themed setting. Fortunately, the survival of a remarkable document in Hampton’s archives has allowed us to bring this story to life. Eliza “Didy” Ridgely (1828-1894), a teenage daughter, recorded “CHRISTMAS GIFTS of the Colored Children of Hampton, Given by E. Ridgely,” a lengthy list enumerating the names of over fifty enslaved children and the specific gifts they were given each year from 1841-1854.2 The gift list (a scanned copy is on view; click for a larger image) records items such as dolls, doll furniture, toy animals, musical instruments, and toy soldiers, which we have used as a guide in displaying both antique and reproduction toys.

Hampton is able to display in the Drawing Room a plant that would not be accurate for most other mid-19th century American houses. Hampton’s mistress at this time, Eliza Eichelberger Ridgely (1803-1867), was a noted horticulturist who often introduced unusual and exotic plants to the estate’s gardens and greenhouses. Eliza’s account book records her purchase of “Eurphorbia Poinsettia” on December 15, 1848.3 The plant had only been introduced from Mexico to the United States twenty years earlier by U.S. diplomat Joel Roberts Poinsett, and was not in widespread use as a holiday decoration until the 20th century. In addition to the faux poinsettias, roses are featured in an arrangement on the center table, permissible in December since there was a “Rose House” among Hampton’s 19th century greenhouses.

The most traditional type of holiday display at Hampton is the Music Room (1870-1890). Oral history from family members informs our placement of the tree in the southwest corner of this room. Although decorated trees did not become commonplace in American homes until after the Civil War, we now know from a diary of Helen Stewart Ridgely’s (1854-1929) grandmother that her family had a tree in their Baltimore townhouse as early as 1861.4 In addition to toys placed around and a few wrapped gifts, the display features books the Ridgely children regularly received for Christmas, many of which have survived in the collection. This reflects the very popular 19th century custom of books published specifically to be holiday gifts. Illustrated children’s books sometimes feature Christmas trees with candles or other holiday scenes on their covers and inside, contributing useful visual documentation. By this later 19th century period, the holiday greenery in American homes had become much more profuse, with rooms literally swathed in garlands and swags. Ivy was one of the most popular plants of the era, so garlands are entwined around light fixtures, over mantels, and across table tops in the Music Room.

Left: Cover of Holly Berries by Ida Waugh (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1881). HAMP 7640, Hampton NHS. This period book cover is one of the many depictions of holly during the 19th Century. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.) Right: "Christmas Morning," Holly Berries by Ida Waugh (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1881). HAMP 7640, Hampton NHS. The details of Christmas stockings are useful for furnishing a period holiday installation. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

Left: Cover of Holly Berries by Ida Waugh (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1881). HAMP 7640, Hampton NHS. This period book cover is one of the many depictions of holly during the 19th Century. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)
Right: “Christmas Morning,” Holly Berries by Ida Waugh (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1881). HAMP 7640, Hampton NHS. The details of Christmas stockings are useful for furnishing a period holiday installation. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

Once you have determined your period of interpretation and philosophical approach to holiday decorating, it is a good idea to document it in files or a written report for the benefit of current and future staff and volunteers. The curators at the National Park Service’s Roosevelt-Vanderbilt Sites have been writing holiday furnishings plans for the houses they manage. Following Roosevelt family traditions and customs, which are very well documented, they do not embellish at the home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt because it focuses on the war years when the family only arrived from Washington a few days before the holiday. At Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage retreat Val-Kill, however, holiday decorating is much more elaborate because she “decked the place out” historically.

Respecting the accurate holiday traditions of your site may lead to an uncommon decision—not decorating at all. When there is little or no historical evidence to support the interpretation of a holiday or special event, it may be best to either not start or stop interpreting it. For example, Theodore Roosevelt’s family rarely celebrated Christmas at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, NY, so the park curator stopped the Christmas decorating and associated interpretive programs some years ago.

 Sources

 There are many sources of good information on which to base your exhibits.

Primary Sources – These are very important, especially if site related. These include:

  • Original documents (e.g., account books, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, etc.)
  • Newspapers and magazines (e.g., Godey’s Lady’s Book, Frank Leslie’s Weekly, local newspapers from the historic period)
  • Gift books and children’s books of the period
  • Period cookbooks and housekeeping guides, such as The House Servant’s Directory by Robert Roberts (available in reprint)
  • Oral histories
  • Historic photographs in local archives (historical societies, libraries, newspapers)
Cover of We Young Folk: Original Stories for Boys and Girls (Boston: D. Lothrop & Co., 1886).  HAMP 3863, Hampton NHS. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

Cover of We Young Folk: Original Stories for Boys and Girls (Boston: D. Lothrop & Co., 1886). HAMP 3863, Hampton NHS. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

Secondary Sources – Books on subjects such as the history of Christmas and other holiday celebrations (such as Inventing Christmas by Jock Elliott and The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum) are very informative. Books on related topics such as table settings (Louise Belden’s The Festive Tradition), historic foodways, and historic interiors can also provide useful information, especially if they are illustrated with images of period interiors. Books aimed at collectors of particular items, such as Christmas ornaments, are also helpful. Specialized libraries such as the Winterthur Museum’s also are excellent resources for this type of research.

Internet – Although one must always use care, the internet can be a good preliminary source for the general history of certain holiday traditions such as Christmas trees and gift wrap. More importantly, it is an excellent source for products such as faux food and faux greens. Please bear in mind that it is important to do your historic research first to be familiar with the type of items you are looking for. Also, most purveyors of faux foods are primarily focused on selling to the movie and TV industry, so you need to beware of ordering modern items like spiral sliced hams or over-stuffed poultry! Fortunately, there are a few purveyors who target the historic house museum market.

Impact on Scope of Collection Statement

Unless they are rare or expensive period objects, decorations purchased for holiday displays most likely should not enter the museum collection. Instead they should be managed as props and stored separately from the collection. Eisenhower National Historic Site‘s Scope of Collection Statement contains the following paragraph summarizing this philosophy nicely:

The [park] maintains a collection of reproduction Christmas decorations. These are used each December to decorate the Eisenhower home in the same fashion as the Eisenhowers did. . . . These reproduction Christmas decorations, however, are not accessioned into the museum collection. They are considered to be ‘exhibit props’ since they are only exhibited for four weeks a year, are relatively easy to replace, and are not worth the time and expense to curate, considering the current extent of backlog work for original objects.5

Managing holiday decorations outside the museum collection also facilitates discarding and replacing reproduction objects when they become worn and no longer presentable for exhibit.

Being Educational and Informative to Enhance Interpretive Value

 Holiday displays should always support the site’s interpretive mission. Holidays are actually an ideal opportunity to educate the public since most people don’t know a great deal about the actual history of holiday celebrations. Exhibits such as Hampton’s Drawing Room are probably an unexpected holiday theme for most of the public, but is a great interpretive opportunity. Holiday displays can also dispel misconceptions and commonplace historical inaccuracies, such as lavish “della Robbia” style wreaths laden with fruit hanging on a Colonial era doorway. You can show the authentic scene and then tell visitors why it may look different than what they expected to satisfy both visitors’ interest in holiday decorations and your institution’s educational mission.

Endnotes

1 Libbey Hodges Oliver and Mary Miley Theobald, Williamsburg Christmas:  The Story of Christmas Decoration in the Colonial Capital  (New York:  Harry N. Abrams, 1999), p. 31.

2 “CHRISTMAS GIFTS of the Colored Children of Hampton, Given by E. Ridgely,” 1841-1854, HAMP 14733, MS. 001, Ridgely Family Papers, Hampton NHS, Towson, MD.

3 Eliza Ridgely’s Account Book, 1845-1851, HAMP 16583, MS. 001, Ridgely Family Papers, Hampton NHS, Towson, MD.

4 Pocket diary of Leonice M.S. Moulton, 1861, HAMP 40005, Ridgely Family Papers, Hampton NHS, Towson, MD.

5 Michael Florer, Scope of Collection Statement:  Eisenhower National Historic Site  (Gettysburg, PA:  Eisenhower National Historic Site, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, 2011), p. 11.

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